Physical training campus for civil servants 'eminently sensible', PM says

Sunak says having a physical home for professional development is a "question of resourcing"
Screenshot: Parliament TV

Rishi Sunak is “open to” the idea of bringing back a physical training campus for civil servants, he has said.

Speaking to MPs on the Liaison Committee yesterday, Sunak said having a physical location where civil servants could engage in learning and development was an “eminently sensible and plausible idea”.

The National School of Government site at Sunningdale Park in Berkshire closed in 2012 and was later sold to property developers. Ministers have since resisted calls for the creation of a new physical training base in favour of an online offer.

When committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin noted that “no other major civil service around the world does not have a physical location for teaching face to face’ and that using solely online teaching and contractors “is shown not to work”.

“It is not the same,” Sunak said, saying he was “broadly supportive” of the idea.

He said that when the Treasury announced plans for its Darlington base in 2021, when he was chancellor, he had considered whether it was possible to “incorporate something like that into that facility at the same time”.

“I am obviously very sympathetic to that. It is a question of resourcing and the next spending review, but again, on a point of principle, I very much welcome hearing committees’ recommendations on that so that it can be picked up in the next spending review. I think it is an eminently sensible and plausible idea,” he said.

Asked by Jenkin if it would be a good idea for such an institution to train ministers and special advisers “in the same way, so that everyone understands the same language”, Sunak was less enthusiastic.

“There is already an established training programme for ministers, which it is worth just remarking on. I think there are eight different training courses involved in it,” he said, also nodding to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s training for ministers who sponsor major projects.

“There is also an induction programme now for new ministers that did not exist previously. I think this was also picked up in some of the Francis Maude recommendations. I am very open to considering whether we have the right mechanisms in place, but it is worth just reflecting that, while people think there is nothing, there are actually various training modules in place and being used,” he added.

Earlier this month, former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill said a physical campus is needed both to support learning and to enable officials and politicians to work together more effectively.

"The network effect you get from those people just being in the same room, having coffee and getting to know each other, is really beneficial, because then you understand the different tensions and cultures,” he said.

"Quite often in conversations like these, you have ministers complaining that civil servants are not political enough and civil servants complaining that politicians are too political, and vice versa. People have got to understand each other’s imperatives and cultures, and you cannot do that online."

Civil service headcount, the Maude review and the 'deep state'

Earlier in the session, Sunak was grilled on plans to reduce the size of the civil service.

Wragg pointed out that since Hunt’s announcement that the civil service headcount – then at 488,000 – would be capped, it has risen to 502,750.

Asked whether it is still the government’s policy to reduce the size of the civil service, Sunak said it was. He referred to the drive that aims to boost public sector productivity, which has fallen by 5% since before the Covid pandemic.

“Obviously, headcount is one of the features of productivity, but as a general rule we should be striving for greater public sector productivity. The chancellor has been driving this process,” he said.

Asked if he had a target in mind for civil service numbers, he said he did not have headcount figures to hand. “But I just refer to whatever the chancellor said on the matter, because he is giving it very close attention,” he added.

The PM was also briefly questioned on the merits of splitting the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service – a key recommendation from Francis Maude’s review of civil service governance and accountability late last year.

“I think we are still in the process – and I am certainly in the process – of digesting all of his various recommendations, and we will no doubt respond at the appropriate time. I think there are some things that we are already doing, which I am sure we will touch on, in terms of things like training and other bits and bobs, but I cannot recall every single recommendation to hand,” he said.

Sunak’s comments come after Cabinet Office minister John Glen cast doubt on whether ministers plan to implement Maude’s findings.

Last week, Glen told the committee: “It is not something that we have formally contemplated.”“What I have tried to do is explore the positive elements of what Francis Maude has said but I think you can recognise the stage we are at in the electoral cycle, in terms of legislative change and the space to do that sort of radical reform now,” he said.

Appearing alongside Glen at the same hearing, cab sec Simon Case said there were “a couple of areas” in Maude’s review “where the Treasury gets a bad rap and it is unfair”.

The review called for a streamlined Treasury as part of a new-look centre of government that would also include an Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet and an Office of Budget and Management, which Maude said should take charge of civil service management and reform, public spending and major cross-cutting functions like financial management, commercial procurement and project delivery.

But Case told the MPs that while “the Treasury gets a bad rap for somehow not enabling cross-cutting funding for cross-government programmes”, this is not the case. “I think a lot of focus ends up going on the Treasury, which is just a consequence of politics. The Treasury can be harnessed, with all of its capabilities, with a strong political direction,” he said.

Sunak was also asked for his thoughts on his predecessor Liz Truss’s comments that she was undermined by the “deep state”, Sunak said: “That is probably a question for her, rather than me.”

Asked again, he repeated: “That is probably a question for her. I probably wouldn’t tell you if I was, would I?”

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